In a symphony of coughs and wheezes—my wife Sheila, my sister Irene and I stood near Ron’s bed when the nurse came. “Are you three family?” she asked. “If not, you have to leave!”
Irene coughed, “I’m his wife. Sheila his sister, Brad—his brother-in-law.”
“Double brother-in-law,” I volunteered. “Brother-sister couples who married each other in a double wedding.” I squeezed Sheila’s hand.
“Live together.” Coughs interrupted Ron’s words. “Brad has been my best friend since second grade.”
“Very well,” said the nurse. “But, no smoking.”
“Don’t smoke,” Sheila coughed. “Radon poisoning, bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer dictate our coughing. Ron’s symptoms are the most advanced, so we brought him here to be stabilized.”
The nurse nodded. “Doctor Tully is here to counsel with you. I’m sure he can help.”
A dark-haired man in a lab coat entered. A cluster of pens and a notepad crowded his pocket. He studied the clipboard on the bedpost. “Ron,” he said. “Doc Tully. You’re twenty-six, radon poisoning, stage IV lung cancer. My notes assure me you’re responsible. I won’t mince words. Looks like you have a month at most.”
The three of us linked hands. “I ordered two scrips,” he added. “One to ease pain, the other to help restrain your coughing. Since your sister is a nurse and your family is supportive, you may spend your remaining days at home or stay here at Ochsner.”
“I prefer home,” Ron managed between coughs.
Arriving home in the French Quarter, Shelia and I went to the kitchen for water, and Irene went to the bedroom she shared with Ron to feed the canary.
“Let’s all get some rest,” I suggested.
At our bedroom door, Sheila winked at me.
“John Smith loves Pocahontas!” I responded, as I hefted her over the threshold. “I want you for Thanksgiving meal!”
“Put me down, Neanderthal. It’s not Thanksgiving yet!”
“Do you remember last Thanksgiving’s meal?” I asked. “Maybe we four could do that again—return to that moment! Do you think we’ll survive that long?”
“Irene said she prayed that we would and was told that this Thanksgiving would be the best of all our times together.” Shelia smiled and nodded. “She’s your sister, and you know God always answers her prayers!”
“So what am I?” I asked.
“You’re my lead man, Brad. I’d be completely lost without you.”
“Can’t beat you, can I?”
“You may, if you want to!” She pealed her jeans and slapped her bum. “But I can’t have it bruised for my examination.”
“Isn’t that today?”
“It is. Can you take me?”
“To the moon, the stars, the Milky Way….”
“Eloquent, for a caveman.”
I put her on the bed, kissed her until we became extensions of each other.
“Your eyes are green today,” I said.
“Not hazel?” she asked. “Guess they’re jealous.”
“All of you is beautiful!” I countered, and then I kissed her eyes. “Is that better?”
We snuggled together and she whispered. “I love you so much….”
“Not as much as I love you.”
“More—and for longer,” she replied.
“Because you saw me first,” I complained.
“I looked for you—even as a child.”
“You found me!” I sighed.
She pulled me to her and we drifted off until the alarm sounded. “Two o’clock,” she said. “Let’s check on our siblings.”
We put on robes, poured glasses of water and walked to their bedroom. “You guys awake?” Sheila asked.
“Talking about last Thanksgiving!” Irene answered. “Remembering that love-feast! You two were so loud, we could hear you down the hall!”
“Didn’t come close to the ruckus you raised at our first anniversary celebration.” We laughed and coughed, then laughed some more.
“I remember how our folks used to light up after they made love.” Sheila added.
“Ours smoked after their time in the bedroom too,” Irene coughed.
“That’s the problem,” Ron said. “Smoke multiplies the effect of radon poison by ten, and it’s especially damaging to children.”
“The sins of the parents….” Irene muttered.
“They molded us into the people we are,” Sheila countered in their defense.
My little family watched as I tended the canary.
“Thanks for the water,” Ron and Irene chanted. Sheila put her hand behind Ron’s head and leaned the glass to his mouth.
“Room temperature okay?” Sheila asked. Ron waved off the question.
Sheila smiled. “Brad is taking me to the doctor, need anything?”
Irene looked up. “Ron’s prescriptions….”
“We’re on it, Sis,” Sheila responded.
Ron cleared his throat. “Couldn’t have three better folk to live and die with.”
“Be back before dinner,” I promised.
How much time did we have? I wondered, and I thought about the bird, a gift from my mother—told her we’d find a radon-free home so it was unnecessary, but she insisted we keep the canary anyway as a early-warning-gift.
“Where is your head?” Sheila asked.”
“Sorry, doll. Just considering how all this might play out.”
“Don’t….” Sheila scolded. “Focus on holding us together. If we concentrate on each other, we might make it through this.”
“Hopeful, wise, gracious, beautiful. How did I score you? You’re the healer, the repairer of the broken, the completer of a sentence that needed to be spoken!”
“Those words bond.” she said. “How about an affirmation for Ron?”
“Ron—the figurer of plans, the one who understands. If there’s a way—he’ll find it, and we’ll all get behind it!”
“Now you’re cooking. How about Irene?”
“Our spiritual link, she doesn’t need to think. She lends her lights to brighten up our days and nights! I’m the only one who offers nothing.”
“Are you kidding, Brad? You’re humble, passionate, self effacing. You’re the glue that holds us together. We love you so much. You bring that final touch!”
“Sometimes I get sticky,” I admitted.
Sheila gasped. “You’re verbiage is contagious! I just contributed to your doggerel. Your radon-riddled-muse is rubbing off on me! But your goodness bonds us! You’re the glue, my humble hubby, and I love you for that stick-to-itiveness!”
* * *
We returned to find our siblings watching Love Story. Tears cascaded down their cheeks as credits rolled. “Here are your scrips, Ron.” Sheila put the bag on the nightstand then turned to her brother. “Talked to Jenny in pharmacy. Told her your pain has worsened. She suggested taking two tablets. Said she’d call Doc Tully about increasing the dosage to save us an office visit.”
I studied my family. “You guys up for dinner?”
“Not hungry,” Ron admitted through coughs. “But I’d entertain a snack?”
“And a game of bridge?” I suggested. “On your bed.”
Sheila squeezed my hand. “I’m in,” said Ron.
“Me too,” added Irene.
In the first four hands, I pulled the best cards. Sheila, my partner complained, “I’m tired. I’ll play another hand, but if my cards don’t improve, I’m calling it a night.” Then she excused herself to the bathroom.
Picking up her cards, I replaced two deuces, a four and an eight with two aces, a king and a jack, and I still had honors. Ron eyed me. “Hope you’re being nice.”
“When we played at the folk’s,” Irene recalled, “Brad made a habit of stuffing Mother’s hands. I don’t think Dad ever told her. Brad has always had winning hands. Lucky in cards, lucky in love!”
Sheila came back and spread her hand with a jaw-swallowing grin—never one with a poker face. She excused herself four more times, and I augmented her cards each time, with grins from Ron and Irene.
When Ron took his pills, his symptoms lessened. We played another hour. Finally he yawned, “I’m all in, guys. I need some rest.”
After a short sleep, Irene beat frantically on our door. “Call 911! Ron stopped breathing!” she shrieked.
Sheila rushed to administer CPR, blowing into his lungs and pressing his chest—again and again. After ten minutes she stopped—exhausted. “He’s gone,” she sobbed. Her tears drenched my shirt as I held her to me.
* * *
Reverend Crossland welcomed visitors to his chapel, read scriptures, concluded his personal message and invited remarks from the congregation.
Sheila stood. “Ron was a perfect brother–stopped problems before they began–was there for the three of us. Childhood with him was idyllic, except for the radon.”
Irene dried her eyes as she stepped to the pulpit. “Wonderful, loving husband, he looked to others before himself. But I won’t have his arms to hold me any more.”
I got up and addressed the congregation. “Many of you know I’ve had moments when the muse prevailed on me. So, I present this poem for my best friend, Ron. It is in response to the questions that assault my mind. I’ve titled it ‘Where Are You?’”
Have you settled in the soil,
or risen to the heights?
Is your spirit merely resting,
or has it taken flight?
Do you soar amongst the angels,
or dream beneath the ground?
Are you lost to us forever,
or can your soul be found
in the fair and fragile flowers
that will greet us in the spring
and the stirring, spectral rainbows
the summer showers bring.
Did your bright smile fade away
to mute the shades of fall?
Or is the winter’s whiteness
the end for one and all?
Several of our friends added their tributes before we left for home.
As I drove the causeway to New Orleans in our Lincoln Continental, we were all pensive. Looking out across windy, sun-drenched Lake Pontchartrain, gulls, terns and pelicans patrolled the twenty five mile span. Fishing boats dotted the waves, and sails fluttered about. Ron must love this blue sky weather I considered. I looked in the rear-view mirror and thought I saw his silhouette. It lingered, head erect, shoulders back, the way he looked when he was young and healthy. I blinked the image away. Was I daffy, or could I see him because I was close to death myself?
“I sense Ron so strongly I don’t miss him yet,” Irene said. “And the service was comforting–unlike those for our parents.”
Sheila added, “At mom’s funeral, the weather was so dismal, noon looked like midnight. On her death bed she complained she wasn’t supposed to die so unhappily, and she apologized for bringing us up with radon, as if that had been her intent.”
“Ron’s funeral was wonderful,” I interjected. “We should live our days as though he were with us—watch his shows, eat his favorite meals—except for that stinky liver he loved. Let’s make Preservation Hall tonight. Sammy Penn is on drums. He always talked to Ron. Couldn’t make the funeral but sent roses and a card.”
“Maybe we’ll see Ron there,” Irene mused.
* * *
Preparing for our evening, I sensed Ron’s presence. I looked over my shoulder to see a shadow vanish as Irene switched on the light. “Thought I saw Ron,” she said. “I’m so used to him…. We hold his spirit with us. There’s power in the vows that joined us, power in the double wedding that led us to share our lives….”
“Ready for our evening?” Sheila asked.
On St. Ann Street, I looked to my left where Ron usually walked. Lanterns flickered, and I almost spoke his name….
At Preservation Hall, Sammy hovered over us. “Didn’t expect you folks today. But I’ll do something for my-man-Ron.” Reaching behind a partition, he pulled out a round, copper-colored set of cylinders.
“Kettle drums….” I commented. “Ron loved your percussion skills.”
Sammy corrected me. “We call them timpani…. Plan to dedicate the first couple numbers to your brother if that’s okay.” I couldn’t help but smile.
Sammy watched the room fill. “Folks,” he blared, through his megaphone, “Let’s take a moment to remember Ron Williams who was buried in Covington today.”
Heads bowed and the Hall fell silent. Sammy eyed the lead singer. A wailing-gravel-voice broke the hush. “When the Saints, oh when the Saints….” Embellishments by Sammy put the number over the top. Sammy hugged the timpani like he did his girlfriend, and when he’d finished, he picked up his megaphone once more. “Ladies, gentlemen, for our second number, one of Ron’s favorite songs, in deference to his wife: Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” The timpanist in Sammy rolled, and I visualized Ron strolling side by side with Jesus.
Throughout our time at the Hall, I saw fleeting shadows, forms that resembled my brother-in-law. Then I turned and questioned the man beside me, “Ron?”
“Wrong hombre, podner,” the man said with a smile.
His size and shape were a double for brother-in-law. His voice, minus the Texas drawl, was Ron’s. “Pardon me….” I said.
“Sorry for your loss,” he responded.
On our way home, I could have sworn a shade took Irene’s hand. It’s fingers seemed to curl around hers, and her forearm swung in the darkness.
When we got home, I opened the crème de menthe, Ron’s favorite nightcap. I poured three glasses as Sheila got four slices of wedding cake from the fridge and placed them on napkins.
“Thawed the last of our wedding cake to recall our time with Ron,” she said. “It works well with the crème de menthe!”
“Four slices?” Sheila ignored my question.
“One for me,” came a tinny voice. “Where’s my crème de menthe?”
I heard a scraping of chair legs on tile, and a dim figure held my sister, wiped her tears away. “Good to see you,” he whispered. “Couldn’t leave. Wanted you all to know I care. Brad, you’re my best friend. Sheila, if I’d created a sister, I couldn’t have made a better one. Irene, my love! I can’t express how much your companionship comforted me. I led a life of excessive happiness with you three!”
When I poured a fourth crème de menthe, Sheila and Irene were unresponsive. Ron’s shade wavered as he downed his nightcap. Then he vanished.
“Did you see that?” I asked Sheila.
“Sheila!” Then I looked where Ron had been—no napkin or glass on the table, no chair pulled to where I’d seen him. “Never mind,” I cackled. “Just never mind.”
“Gilda Radner impersonations again? What’s going on?” Sheila asked.
“I’m slipping; been seeing Ron all evening, imagined I saw him just now.”
“He is here,” Irene affirmed. “In Sheila, in you, in me, even in Sammy!”
Dark circles of mascara ringed Irene’s eyes. She looked like a zombie. “Wasn’t Ron wonderful to visit?” she asked in a voice, half there, half not. I poured some water on a dishcloth and wiped her eyes and forehead. “See you in the morning, Sis.” And she left for bed.
Shelia began fixings for Thanksgiving and put the turkey in a crock pot.
I joined my sister for a moment. “We plan to have our regular turkey tomorrow. Maybe Ron will join us again.”
“We’ll all celebrate together,” she assured me. “I can feel it in the stars.”
I hugged her and joined Sheila, who was already asleep in our room. I kissed Shelia’s lips and watched them curl in a smile. She had always responded to my kisses, even in her sleep.
Morning came too soon. I left Sheila and wandered to the kitchen to check the turkey. Ron and Irene were there dancing round the meal Shelia had prepared. They’d put everything on the table and eyed me like a couple sixteen-year-olds. “Join us,” Irene urged.
The canary disrupted my hallucination. I rushed to the bedroom, and the laughter in the kitchen ceased. Sprawled on the bed, my sister’s twisted body lay face down on a pillow. I lifted an arm that was as rigid as raw lumber. “Sheila, help me, Sheila,” I ran down the hall to our bedroom. “Irene’s dead!”
Always able to rise above adversity, Sheila ran to the bedroom, bounding with the energy of the apparitions that had skipped around the table.
I looked in the kitchen. “Irene, where are you?”
“Who are you talking to?” Sheila asked. “She’s gone.”
“I’m losing my sanity,” I complained. “I can’t keep us together—can’t even keep myself together!” I said looking at the turkey. “Call 911, Honey.”
Ron and Irene reappeared. “Come join us,” they entreated.
I studied my wife, who’d just hung up the phone.
“She can’t see us,” Ron said. “Hold hands with us, and she’ll follow. You’re the link that keeps our group together.”
“It’s time to go,” I told Sheila. She looked at me, wide-eyed, mouth open. “They’re waiting for us.”
I linked hands with the animated couple, and my heart exploded. I whirled in a vortex, drifted through the light of stars until they spiraled into daybreak at the end of a tunnel. Ron and Irene welcomed me into their new world.
I stood with them, and Sheila shrieked, “Brad! You can’t leave me!”
She pounded on my torso, pinched the nose of my corpse, breathed into its mouth. “No, no!” she cried. With a fierce look in her eyes, she beat and pressed on my lifeless chest. “Come back! You can’t leave me! Come back….”
I felt Sheila’s breath draw me to my inert form, but Ron and Irene held me fast.
When she was too weak to continue, Sheila hugged my cadaver, then pushed it away and slapped its ashen face. “Brad, how could you?”
She stood, and I looked at her. “Whaaat—” she mouthed. “Brad? No, you’re dead! You couldn’t be….”
“Don’t get too excited,” Ron warned. “Take it slow. She’s beginning to realize, but you’re the only one she can see, the only one who can bring her here.”
I opened my spirit and took a breath of eternity. Reaching out to Sheila, I felt myself change to something almost corporeal. “I’m here, babe. Join me! The three of us are waiting,” I said in a whisper voice with no trace of a cough.
She squinted and rubbed her eyes. “Don’t go. There’s something I must do.”
She ran to the bedroom and rushed back holding the bird cage. With a look of delight, she opened the window and released the canary. She stumbled toward me and knocked the turkey and all the trimmings to the floor.
I felt her flesh touch my spirit. “Hold me,” she said. “I feel faint.”
The next instant, Ron, Irene, Sheila and I stood at the portal of eternity and looked back as police rushed into the kitchen. They studied our bodies, the open birdcage and the Thanksgiving meal strewn about the floor. A young officer addressed the senior E.M.T. “What in the name of heaven happened here? One hell of a Thanksgiving meal, I’d say!”
From the periphery of my vision, lighted figures approached with outstretched hands—parents, friends, people we remembered who had brought joy into our lives. The dead grew in number and welcome as I watched.
“Welcome friends….” came the chorus, and they smiled in unison, as if they understood the power of that harmony. “This is indeed a glorious Thanksgiving!” the group exclaimed. “It’s good to have you with us once again!”
Author Russell MacClaren is a Writer and Poet.
You can reach him at his Facebook page
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